Why are there no indigenous horses in Africa, south of the Sahara? It’s because of two killer diseases: Trypanosomiasis (African sleeping sickness – ASS) and African Horse Sickness (AHS).
No horses in Africa, yet zebra’s do so well? The explanation here seems to be “stripes”. Tsetse flies are the vectors of sleeping sickness, and tsetse flies don’t like stripes. Added to which zebras (and donkeys) have acquired a high degree of tolerance to AHS and it’s rarely fatal, whereas AHS is usually fatal for horses.
But hang on; take a look back into pre-colonial Africa and you’ll discover a formidable cavalry heritage in the area known as the Sahel: the semi-arid zone that bands the continent, south of the equator and north of the Congo. The feared Songhay cavalry (Mali/Niger), the Kanembu in Tchad; the entire Dongola heritage of Sudan, Ethiopia and Cameroun; and the cavalry of the Oyo Empire (Nigeria and Benin) are all proud cavalry regiments. So what did they ride?
Trans-Sahara trade routes have existed for eons: huge camel caravans crossed the Sahara bringing metal goods south and gold, ivory, salt and slaves north. It’s not documented, but this would appear to be the answer to the question of Sahel cavalry horses. The trans-Sahara Arab traders introduced Barb horses (from Morocco) which formed the backbone of all these cavalries. Barbs were highly prized but had a short lifespan south of the Sahara due to AHS and the tsetse flies (ASS), so they needed to be replaced regularly, which was good for trade!
This led to attempts to breed a resistant horse, with partial success. Look at a map of Africa and where the River Niger forms its great bend, heading towards Timbuktu, this is where the semi-resistant horse was bred. However, ‘body’ and prowess were sacrificed to gain semi-resistance and the resultant horse was small and a shadow of its form Barb incarnation. There were also attempts to cross breed with zebras which are resistant to ASS. But zebras don’t really date outside their own stripy kind; minor success was achieved by painting stripes onto a Barb mare to encourage the zebra stallion, but not on a sustainable level. Besides, Zebras have short, powerful necks and don’t really lend themselves to head collar and bit.
Indigenous African horses
There is talk of an indigenous sub-Sahara horse, The Dongola, named after a town in Sudan. The breed came to prominence in the Sudan and was traded across the border into Ethiopia. Latterly it was most abundant in northern Cameroon on the other side of the continent. The Dongola is directly derived from the Moroccan Barb (so isn’t really indigenous to Sudan) and the breed still exists today. Nowadays it’s become a poor specimen of a horse and the breed is in decline and rare, however, in its day (12th and 13th Century) was highly valued as a war horse. It developed just north of the Tsetse fly zone.
I find the ebb and flow of equine priorities fascinating. The Barb has played such a crucial role in human history (even Julius Caesar rode one) yet stumbled into decline in the last century. Its value is once again being realised and the export of Barbs from Morocco is banned in the hope that the stud book will recover to its former glory – which it undoubtedly will.
The here and now
Today there are riding holidays in every country south of the equator in Africa, how do they cope? And are humans susceptible to AHS or ASS?
What are Tsetse Flies?
There’s one African resident you’re best to avoid: the tsetse fly. They look like a house fly on steroids, but behave like a horse fly: they bite. Not all tsetse flies are carriers, but they do all bite. African sleeping sickness is curable but is usually fatal if left untreated. Unlike the malaria parasite, there is no prophylactic. Similar to the malaria parasite, the sleeping sickness parasite is a protozoa, not a viral or bacterial infection. There are a number of things you can do to avoid being bitten in the first place, and this detailed advice is included in our Field Manuals.
African Sleeping Sickness (ASS)
The chances of being infected from a bite are minimal: most cases of ASS are found in local hunters and farmers who frequent woodland and have faced repeated exposure to bites. Symptoms of sleeping sickness include fatigue, muscle aches, fever, and headaches. Eventually, these can progress to psychiatric disorders, seizures, difficulty sleeping, coma, and death. There is no vaccine for the disease, which might seem quite alarming, but cases of ASS are in sharp decline – with new cases at just 5% of the number they were in 1995.
The trick to keeping horses healthy in sub-Sahara Africa is quite straight forward. Both AHS and ASS are spread by flying insects, midges and the tsetse fly respectively. Eliminate the insects and you control the disease, which is easier said than done. Insecticides are helpful, as is spraying horses with repellent. In Namibia for example, there is a route dating from the 1850’s whereby horses were moved from highland (midgey country but good grazing) to Namib desert (scant grazing but zero midges) in times of AHS outbreak.
Am I At Risk when riding in Africa?
ASS is not as prevalent in East or southern Africa as it is in Western or Central African countries, but there is a risk for both locals and visitors to East and Southern Africa. Travellers visiting rural areas and safari parks are at greater risk than those visiting city or coastal areas but it’s always good to exercise precautions to avoid being bitten.
Where Will I Find Tsetse Flies?
The flies tend to seek shelter in bushy and forested areas during the hottest parts of the day, so avoid doing walking safaris during these hours when your presence might agitate and awaken the lazy flies. Strangely, tsetse flies are attracted to moving vehicles. When venturing through densely forested areas, it’s a good idea to close your windows and keep your eyes peeled to avoid a painful surprise.
Avoiding Tsetse Flies
There’s no need to let tsetse flies deter you from having your dream safari. While the bites can be painful (akin to a horsefly bite or ant bite) the chances of a visitor contracting ASS are incredibly low. Still, if you’d rather not experience their bite first hand, there are a number of precautions you can take:
Wear long sleeved shirts and trousers to cover exposed skin
Wear neutral colours. Tsetse flies are especially attracted to black and blue
Avoid walking through dense forest during the hot hours of the day
Insect repellent is only slightly effective at deterring tsetse flies
Sleep with a mosquito net
At many lodges you’ll spot panels of black and blue fabric around the property’s boundaries. These act to lure tsetse flies away from the lodge.